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Capsule Review – “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

May 25th, 2015 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I recently finished reading Neil Stephenson’s book, “Seveneves.” I’ve been a Stephenson fan for awhile, the first book of his that I read was the three-volume “Baroque Cycle,” which I thought was a real tour de force. It made me loop back and read some of his earlier oeuvre such as “Snowcrash” and “Cryptonomicon.” I wasn’t that impressed by “The Mongoliad,” with its weird non-functional on-line story-website. So I approached this new book with a measure of hopefulness and trepidation. I had read some luke-warm reviews of it, particularly in the New York Times. But, I thought, “hey, why not, I’ll give it a chance.” The title, at least, reminded me of Bryan Syke’s book “The Seven Daughters of Eve,” which uses mitochondrial DNA analysis to conclude that all humans basically are descendants from seven primordial women (actual people, not just phenotypes); I don’t know if Stephenson was inspired by it, but, as I was to discover, his story relies on the same premise.

Stephenson asks us to imagine that a mysterious agent has caused the moon to fragment into seven pieces (a corollary to the seven Eves?). They have a proclivity to collide with each other, and break into increasingly smaller pieces. Unfortunately, gravity being what it is, the prognosis is they will crash into earth in about two years, give or take a few days, exterminating all life on the planet. The first third of the book is about humanity’s preparations for this event … including the selection of a select group of young persons to be launched into space and rendezvous with a space station. With the hope that they will survive the coming catastrophe, breed, and eventually repopulate the planet.

Some of them, at least, make it up there. The second third of the book is about the trials, travails and tribulations of the space station crew and the new arrivals. Gradually the population of both is thinned out, primarily as a result of crashes with left-over fragments of moon rocks. I think this part is the best. Stephenson’s writing is taut and suspenseful. One really gets a feel for the claustrophobic environment, and the scenario he paints is eerily realistic, i.e., one can imagine it happening, it’s not completely phantasmagorical. The character of the ex-President of the U.S. is particularly cringe-worthy. Only seven women – the Eves – make it to their destination, a cleft in one of the remaining moon fragments. They all have different personalities and temperaments, and each played a different and often antagonistic role in the journey that brought them there. Now, their main goal is to propagate. One of them is a genetic engineer. She not only does away with the need for men, but also gives each of the others a choice to modify one genetic trait that she would like to pass on to her descendants.

Stephenson has an amazing way with words. I found myself tapping on unfamiliar words, in order to get the definition. He also is a terrific phenomenologist, taking care to break activities and events down into their component steps, and then describing them as carefully as possible. This must have taken a lot of research to do properly, as his explanations are detailed and precise. Either that, or he has a large fund of knowledge about miscellaneous arcane subjects, ranging from the essential to the trivial.

In the last third of the book, Stephenson invites us leap forward 5,000 years in time. There now are over a billion people living on the moon rocks, which have spread out like rings around Saturn. With some exceptions for limited inter-breeding, they pretty much have created genetically-isolated islands, based on their original ancestor. This has enabled them to cultivate and enhance certain quirky genetic characteristics. The earth has cooled off. In fact, two of the characters from the first third of the book – a miner, who is the father of one of the surviving protagonists, and a submarine captain, another’s fiancé – were able to create self-sufficient (albeit somewhat inbred) environments, enabling a small coterie of original-issue humans to survive. Chaos ensues when the technically-advanced moon-rock people confront them.

To me, this was the least convincing part of the story. I mean, I get what he was trying to do, but his writing style seemed a bit more perfunctory in a way that wasn’t “form over content” ironic. It’s like he felt as though he was falling behind and his writing style deteriorated somewhat in order to make up for lost time. It also crammed in too much activity, plot-wise.

These are just quibbles, though, in what otherwise was a superior book.